ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Through the backseat window of a black KGB car, Yosef Mendelevitch could see university students his age hurrying to take their finals.
It was June 15, 1970, and the 23-year-old Mendelevitch had just been arrested along with 11 accomplices for trying to hijack a plane to escape the Soviet Union. On the tarmac of an airport outside St. Petersburg – then called Leningrad – officers from the Soviet secret police detained the conspirators before they could board the single-engine plane they planned to fly to Israel.
Mendelevitch spent the next 11 years in prisons and a gulag, where he endured cruel treatment and constant harassment for being Jewish. He was denied a last visit by his ailing father as punishment for wearing a yarmulke and force-fed after a 56-day hunger strike he undertook to protest the denial of kosher food and the right to pray.
“I remember thinking to myself, they’re going about their daily lives, while my own life was ruined,” Mendelevitch said Sunday during his first visit to the city since his release in 1981.
But his life was far from ruined.
Now a rabbi and father of seven living in Jerusalem, Mendelevitch received a hero’s welcome last week from local Jews who flocked to hear him recall the hijacking attempt that many regard as the opening shot in the massive international campaign to free Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Speaking at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference here, Mendelevitch needed two sessions to convey the details and aftermath of the daring attempt known as Operation Wedding.
But Mendelevitch had another objective in returning to a place he says “brings back no good memories.” He wants to encourage participants to make aliyah.
“This city has 100,000 Jews, but only 350 came to Limmud FSU,” Mendelevitch told JTA. “Most of them became lost to our people through the actions of the system that tried to tear away my identity. I tell them my story. They can draw their own conclusions.”
Mendelevitch was one of the leaders of the hijacking team that grew out of Zionist activists who were running underground Hebrew-language night schools in Leningrad and Riga, the capital of Latvia, then under Soviet control. Mendelevitch, who’d been born in Riga and was in charge of the cell’s Latvian contingent.
Surprisingly, the group knew full well they would be arrested, Mendelevitch revealed. “We knew they [the KGB] were watching our every move.”
The group decided to go ahead anyway, “even if only so the world will hear our cry,” he said.
Among the millions who heard the cry was a young Jewish mathematician from Donetsk named Natan Sharansky, the former refusenik whose incarceration in 1977 for Zionist activism became a symbol for human rights activists who rallied across the world for his freedom.
“We had no CNN, no Internet. Nobody knew anything,” Sharansky told JTA. “And though the Soviet regime twisted [the incident] in its propaganda, their action pierced a wall of silence, having a huge impact on the movement to free the Prisoners of Zion.”
In 1981, a KGB judicial panel informed Mendelevitch he was no longer a Russian citizen. Shortly afterward he was deported in what he described as “one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Yet Mendelevitch says he does not bear his captors any particular grudge.
“Some of them took immoral actions, yes, but ultimately they were the servants of a regime that I vowed to fight,” he said. “I fell captive, as fighters often do. But unlike them, I was not a victim of the Soviet regime. I was a combatant.”